Image generated by DALL-E with prompt “the power of 3D geospatial technology to enhance or destroy liberty and freedom”

 

As I sat down to write this article I was amazed at how quickly my outline ballooned beyond the scope possible to adequately cover in a mere blog post. The interplay between geospatial technology and liberty is rife with rabbit holes extending from philosophy and law to technology and business. So instead of my typical legalistic style, I’m going to try something a little different this week with this more narrative post. I hope you enjoy this verbose glimpse into my brain. 

 

Both liberty and geospatial technology are near and dear to my heart. 

 

I grew up in a household where questioning everything was encouraged and freedom was granted so long as baseline requirements were met (good performance on chores, grades, and activities). We were a family of adventure, camping in the summer, sports throughout the school year, and skiing in the winter. With three boys, most of the time we road tripped on our exploits. As we traveled across the country in our retrofit passenger van I was always enthralled with the atlas. Between giving my parents directions, I often wondered “how do they pack all these roads in all these cities and states into this oversized book?!” 

 

Back in the 90s GPS was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. Slippy maps in the palm of your hand? Forget about it. We had to chart our route ahead of time. Using good old fashioned maps and math to make sure we had enough gas and time to get from town A to town B before continuing on to town C. What’s more, nobody knew where we were except us and those who passed us on the road, and they didn’t know who we were

 

Things are obviously different these days. City streets are mapped by satellite, aerial, and street level sensors. The immense quantity of data is processed by massive server farms running machine learning algorithms to extract street names, speed limits, and the gas stations’ hours of operation. All from images. Data is gathered from your very pocket, as well as the guy in front of you, analyzed, and returned back to you as a green or red line so you know just how long you’ll be sitting in that traffic. Not only does your service carrier know who and where you are 24/7, the myriad of apps on your phone mine this data, selling it to advertisers and government agencies alike. Oh, and the guy in front of you? He uses his phone to see local devices in his vicinity, so he knows who you are too. 

 

Our ability to anonymously roam was lost as soon as we started carrying around supercomputers in our pockets. Yet, at the same time our ability to exploit our liberty by communicating with loved ones, handling business on the road, and navigating our world on the fly has increased exponentially along with the liberty risks associated with being tracked night and day. But this is not a new phenomenon, the privacy debate has been raging for well over two decades. Scholars, members of Congress, courts, and nonprofits have produced a wide range of opinions on the use of location data sourced from billions of cell phones across the globe.

 

At this point you’re likely wondering “so what’s new? What’s the point Jordan? What the heck does modern geospatial technology have to do with liberty?”

 

Well, I can never resist exploiting the number one thing I learned in law school: 

 

It depends. 

 

You see, geospatial technology is rapidly progressing beyond 2D digital maps rife with points of interest, transportation, and mobility data. Digital twins are coming alive as new sensors continue to proliferate, data compression and transmission capabilities advance, processing-as-a-service continues to rise, and AI’s ability to synthesize this data in real-time improves. Point clouds of every neighborhood and town are being generated by hundreds of operators gathering LiDAR data for civil engineering, autonomous vehicle, and mapping projects. Petabytes of 360 degree high resolution imagery is amassing from phones, vehicles, drones, and planes,  moving closer and closer to reproducing real-time digital visualizations of the real world from anywhere. Spectral bands galore are detecting and transmitting data unseen or heard by our naked senses from 5G small cells, IOT devices, and satellites orbiting our planet multiple times per day. And this barely scratches the surface.

 

So, what does all this mean for liberty?

On one hand, it will enhance it. We’ll have unprecedented access to understanding and optimizing our physical world. 

 

Enabling untold exploration and personal experiences in new cities, remote locations in nature, and online worlds. Our ability to travel is no longer restricted by time, borders, and language barriers. We can be whisked away to far off places from the comfort of our living rooms. 

 

Entrepreneurs can leverage this wealth of data to identify market opportunities. Whether it’s where to locate a retail store, how to bet on the market by tracking grain shipments coming out of Asia in near real time, or which aspects of their factory need fine tuning to reduce waste.  

 

Friends, and if necessary first responders, can understand real time field conditions or find lost hikers, backcountry skiers, and explorers in a matter of hours, enabling riskier adventures in far off places.This means increased productivity, wealth, and liberty for those able to harness geospatial technology.

But private citizens and well meaning entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones with access to these new digital worlds. 

 

Soon you will no longer be able to ditch your cell phone to roam with freedom from being tracked. Your privacy fence will no longer provide quiet respite in your backyard from the prying eyes of the outside world. Everything down to that small shed you built without a permit to house your lawn mower, the number of carrots you planted to reduce your grocery bill, the thermal leakage from your out of date windows, and how often your kids go outside to play will be captured, identified by AI, and stored as time series data of a global digital twin. 

 

So what?

 

So what indeed. 

 

I’m not terribly concerned with advertisers using cell phone and IOT location data to target folks with more appropriate consumerist solutions to their perceived problems. And while I’m generally allergic to regulating free markets, I do think there is a lot of value to certain aspects of the GDPR and CCPA enabling folks to understand and consent to how their data is tracked, shared, and managed. We have a right to be anonymous to some degree (this is a huge rabbit hole I’ll leave at this). But location data is generally originated from individuals freely participating in the market by purchasing devices and loading them with apps.

Digital twins born of remotely sensed data are another thing entirely.

 

You see, I don’t love liberty because I just want to run naked in the woods (at least that’s not the only reason). History shows us that the best outcomes are produced from the collective genius of individuals trying things out, and solving problems in new ways specific to their time, place, and context. Centralizing decision making leads to cumbersome organizations, waste, and risk of unanticipated circumstances reducing resilience. That’s the beauty of the United States of America, freedom was born not from the centralized federal government, but from limiting it to enable the perseverance of States and local governments among which people are free to travel. Liberty comes from moving to those far off places where people not only see opportunities to make a living, but to participate in whatever system of governance they feel works best for them. 

 

What’s more, by living where we feel most represented, we are free to think our thoughts and do the things we want within the boundaries of the rules we help form. We trust that doing so will not lead to unjust persecution or discrimination. We are free to be ourselves. 

 

As true digital twins rise, this trust will be threatened. We’ve already seen it as digital town squares open to employers and governments alike have produced unprecedented self censorship from the left and right. As the data available to regulators, police, and the public square extends beyond that which we freely put out there for all to see to that which is collected 24/7 whether we like it or not, the incentives to self censor and “get in line” will only continue to grow, limiting ideas, individualism, community engagement, and innovation. 

 

This is bad. 

 

We grow stronger as ideas and solutions, good and bad, are able to rise from individual creativity. Good ideas prove themselves against the honing rod of diverse perspectives, bad ideas succumb to this collective wisdom unrestricted by the threat of life destroying persecution. 

 

But threatened does not mean doomed. It is incumbent upon the purveyors of geospatial technology, an unprecedentedly powerful tool, to build it with liberty in mind. 

 

This means respecting the anonymity of those wishing to remain anonymous in their location and property, but more importantly staving off the honey pot of government, whose only real tool is violence, despite its eagerness to skirt the 4th Amendment through the purchase of commercial data. Don’t get me wrong, with due process the government’s access to our collective data is vital to protecting and enhancing liberty. But as with all things there is a balance to be struck. 

 

I am hopeful and bullish on the power of geospatial technology to influence the world for the better, enhancing individual liberty by opening up new worlds of opportunity, innovation, and productivity. It’s up to us to strike the right balance between data access and anonymity to bring this bright future into fruition. 

 

How are you thinking about enhancing liberty as you build your geospatial solution?